The Popeye Vintage : In Praise of Ipseity

2021 is the fourth vintage of a series of what I call hybrid vintages like those of 2016, 2018 and 2020, as they condensed within a single growing season so many viticultural challenges requiring quick action to adapt to the situation.” This is how Baptiste Guinaudeau described the vintage to me during my 2021 en primeur tasting at Château Lafleur in Pomerol. It perfectly summarizes the context of this singular vintage, one that unfortunately has already been somewhat maligned by some wine writers and critics who seem more eager to create buzz than to apply the rigorous standards of sound journalism. Indeed, since 2016, the Bordeaux region has experienced a succession of sunny vintages of a very high qualitative level. It seems evident that this is a consequence of the phenomenon of climate change – including, of course, increased temperature trends – that brings in its wake extreme weather events but also a shift in flower and plant blooming patterns. This latter aspect is at the heart of the challenges and combats facing wine growers, for both better and for worse results.

The first major challenge of the 2021 calendar was frost. During the nights of April 7 and 8 – so just a short time before the formal start of the en primeur tastings of the 2020 vintage in Bordeaux –  temperatures plummeted in the region, and both vines and the hearts of wine growers suffered from the icy grip of the cold weather. Father Frost is not known for being a practitioner of democracy, as he usually spares the most well-placed elite estates from bearing the brunt of his icy wrath, so while the damage was significant in some places – usually in terroirs that are more exposed to frost incidents – it was not in others. Moral and economic havoc ensued where it did strike, but among the grand cru sites, other than those in the Sauternes region where the toll was high, the damage was less severe.

Few wine growers have addressed the issue of crop loss from frost with as much frankness as Philippe Bascaules, director of first-growth Château Margaux. It amounted there to “nearly a hectare of white grapes, while some five hectares of red grapes were affected” and this reduced the total harvest by as much as 5 to 10 %. To my mind, this frost episode, which was quite widespread in the region, proved to have been a determining factor in how each property assessed the way to proceed during the remaining periods of the growing season and chose what they considered to be the right viticultural strategy to adopt in this context. Indeed, as a result of the very low temperatures that occurred during a crucial stage of plant growth, there ensued a phase of vine stress that affected growth and led to uneven bud development. Even within the same estate vineyard, depending on where the plots were located and their orientation – but also on the grape varieties and vine age – growing patterns were not the same. This led to further heterogeneity, in this instance a parcel’s vulnerability to vine disease depending on the stage of plant growth on that site. This is why frost played a key role in the second major challenge of 2021, which was the widespread development of cryptogamic disease pressure in the form of mildew, recently reclassified as a eukaryotic organism closely related to brown algae. Frost-related vine vulnerability accounts a great deal for why mildew spread so erratically, even anarchically.

 As stated in the vintage report written by Laurence Geny-Denis and Axel Marchal for the ISVV (Institut des Sciences de la Vigne et du Vin), the month of May began with “localised frost” and “gloomy, wet and cool conditions overall,” and this slowed vine growth and made it uneven. Although  the summer weather conditions that developed in early June were ideal for flowering to take place – albeit “a week later than the twenty year average” – major storms hit during the latter half of June, as shown in the diagram prepared by Château Cheval-Blanc (see below). Humidity and high temperatures favoured the virulent spread of mildew.

cheval_blanc_2021

The battle against such disease pressure was made all the more difficult by the prevailing weather conditions as well as by the previously mentioned inequality existing in the vineyard when it comes to a parcel’s vulnerability to vine disease, which depended on the stage of vine growth. In my opinion, this point is crucial, as it explains why some estates were overwhelmed by the tidal wave of mildew unfurling in their vineyards. “2021 was our first year of organic conversion,” points out Nicolas Glumineau, the director of Château Pichon Longueville Comtesse de Lalande, “and we thought we were just about ready to meet any challenge with the right plant cover, the necessary work force, the tractors, but this year, being just about ready was not enough.” The result for this leading Pauillac estate is barely 15 hl/ha, but Glumineau and his team managed to achieve a remarkable level of quality thanks to drastic sorting in the cellar. 

Let’s be very clear. The whole Bordeaux region was affected by mildew albeit to varying degrees. Some properties managed to contain its development, others did not. Although the situation is certainly different from one estate to another, a general overview seems to indicate at this stage of en primeur tastings that on the right bank, thanks to their smaller size, most properties were more successful in preventing the spread of mildew. On the other hand, poor weather conditions on the left bank made it difficult to use tractors in the large vineyards, and this considerably hindered mechanical treatments. This explains in part why at the en primeur tastings, one heard frequent – but I think erroneous – remarks that Merlot was not up to the desired standards of quality and should therefore not be used in the final blends. 

Even if this opinion may hold true for certain estates, we should ask ourselves a question: if Merlot was of such low quality, should it be used for the second wines ? That is a real question in today’s Bordeaux where it is now frequently said that second wines serve as an introduction to the flagship wine and should therefore be of high quality. In that context of high standards, if the quality of the Merlot is sub-standard, logic dictates that it should even be left out of the blends for the second wine. In fact, as is well known, Merlot is an earlier-flowering and earlier-ripening variety, and so it did indeed suffer drastically from mildew for the reasons mentioned above, notably the element of vulnerability due to the vine growth stage at the time of the outbreak. Despite valiant efforts to combat it, yields were indeed low. However, as noted in the ISVV report, “The Merlots ripened slowly until late September, with no worrying changes to the quality of the grapes, despite their highly porous skins.” 

It pays to take into account the fact that, as the same ISVV report points out, 2021 was not wetter than the average vintage, and particularly so for the period from December 2020 to March 2021, which was no wetter than during the previous twenty years. However, there was often rainfall at decisive moments later during the vine growth cycle, notably at the time of fruit set, and this had an impact on the size of berries, which led to the third major challenge of this complex vintage: larger-than-average berries.

Fruit set is the initial stage of grape formation after successful fertilisation, occurring when a flower forms a berry. From that moment on, and especially if one hopes to harvest grapes of superior quality, it is preferable that the water supply in the vineyard be well regulated. However, apart from a few particularly hot days, in 2021 July was cool and unsettled. “These conditions were very favourable to vine and grape growth,” according to, once again, the ISVV report. However, 2021 was not excessively hot, so hydric stress – an important factor to stop the vegetative growth of the vine and allow it to concentrate on grape ripening, which will, of course, have an impact on tannin quality – did not occur.  Vine growth continued unabated throughout the summer, leaving insufficient energy for the berries to ripen tannins and concentrate the juice. The resulting larger-than-average berries led to the fourth major challenge of the year: the use of the saignée method during the winemaking stage.

This technique consists of removing some of the juice from the vat in order to reduce the ratio of skins to juice and thus extract more tannins to structure the mid-palate. It is a method that is well known in Bordeaux where it used to be implemented quite a lot in the past, but it must be done carefully, especially for a vintage like 2021. Although it is implemented to avoid producing diluted wines using berries with too much juice, when the grapes are ripe, it has to be done sparingly in order not to extract any rough, bitter tannins from the pips.

Some winemakers chose not to use the saignée technique at all, while others did so but at very low levels, but there were some who boldly implemented it as a way to obtain a level of density that they felt was desirable. The real question of whether or not this practice needed to be used in 2021 comes down to this: despite their large size, were the berries ripe or not? Many thought that they were not ripe enough and therefore opened the saignée faucet without hesitation. But since when does the physiological state of the berry depend on its size? I reviewed the texts from my viticulture classes without finding an adequate answer. 

As to the question of whether or not to use saignée, the answer is quite simple. If the grapes are ripe, there is no need to “bleed” the vat, because that means the tannins are ripe and this should provide sufficient density. If, on the other hand, the berries are unripe, why take the risk of extracting green and firm tannins that will unbalance the wine? I am not saying that saignée should not have been used this year, as I am not a winemaker and I have too much respect for this difficult profession, but I am trying to understand why some wines have a relatively supple but well-constituted mid-palate while also presenting noticeably dense, structure-providing but rather rough tannins in the context of a vintage that seemed to indicate the need for gentle extraction to preserve the fresh profile that comes from conditions of slow ripening. I believe that one of the keys to understanding this aspect is found in how saignée was carried out in the quest for density. 

The issue is similar to that involving the use of reverse osmosis to remove excess moisture and concentrate the juice or of carrying out malolactic fermentation in a barrel to impart a rounder texture. Such techniques can also result in an unbalanced, inelegant mouthfeel because of astringent tannins. Sometimes it is better to listen to nature and produce elegant, digestible wines instead of seeking artificial concentration and density that can distort the overall balance and structure of a wine. In any case, the future will be the ultimate judge, so we will have to wait to see which type of wine holds up best after prolonged ageing and whether or not the denser wines resulting from an immoderate use of saignée have a tendency to dry up. If I turn out to be wrong about this potential evolution over time, I will be the first to say so. However, contrary to some of my colleagues, I affirm my preference here for those wines having evident drinkability. Only time will tell which wines stay the distance with elegance.

This fourth challenge concerning whether or not to use the saignée technique to densify the wines was all the more strategically important, because grape ripeness has, of course, a strong impact on the final quality of a finished wine. Just as obvious is the fact that grape ripeness depends on harvest dates, and this was the fifth challenge of the year. A providential Indian summer played an important role in this vintage. For the white grapes, it was clearly beneficial. As we have seen, the summer, particularly the beginning and middle period, was cool – especially at night –  with little sunshine. The ISVV report even described it as “gloomy”. This slowed the ripening process but it also preserved welcome acidity. In the end, the slight lack of ripeness that was observed toward the end of the summer was erased by the idyllic days of late August and early September. Cool nights continued to maintain a good level of acidity, while the warm, sunny days enabled the white grapes to finish their ripening. The result was that 2021 is a superb vintage for dry white Bordeaux wines.

As for the red grapes, it is a rather different and more complicated story. Because of the frost and the following period of rather cool weather – thus lacking the conditions that could have helped to compensate for the previously mentioned heterogeneity of vine growth and grape ripening -, veraison (the stage where the berry turns red) was also very disparate. One thing leads to another, and so, of course, this heterogeneous veraison led to equally heterogeneous grape ripening. This made the usual vineyard work of selection even more essential, but some estates did not anticipate enough. A walk through the vineyards at the end of August provided ample visual evidence of both green and red berries on the same bunch, so there was obviously a degree of uneven ripening that could not always be easily eliminated by the usual different sorting techniques at harvest time. However, the weather conditions turned and proved ideal from the end of August to the end of September, and this gave renewed hope to many winegrowers. The nights were cool, the days were warm and the first Merlot grapes entered the vats in a very good state of health. This simple observation provides another reason to refute the claims made by some wine writers that Merlot was of lesser quality in this vintage.

Then came the weekend of October 2 and 3, another turning point. The French weather services released a dire forecast of heavy rainfall, up to 60 mm of it, for the weekend. Hindsight makes it easy for someone like me to imagine a preferred plan of action, but it was a real dilemma for anxious winegrowers to choose a strategy in such a short lapse of time. Basically, they faced two options: pick without further delay the remaining Merlot and even some Cabernet grapes that were not yet completely ripe or take the risk of waiting out the storm and hope for the return of fine weather. The second solution turned out to be the right one. Indeed, the announced rains never came and a warm weather front of anticyclonic origin settled on Bordeaux, and this enabled the remaining Merlot grapes to ripen perfectly. In the meantime, both Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc could take their sweet time to do the same. Those who harvested too early picked insufficiently ripe grapes ; those who waited clearly won their gamble and were rewarded by warmer than normal daytime temperatures and exceptional sunshine in October, which provided the right conditions for completing the ripening process until the middle of the month, particularly for the Cabernet Sauvignon grapes of the Médoc.

After having discussed this issue of grape ripeness and other related aspects of winegrowing as they relate to this vintage, I wish to consider the final challenge facing producers in 2021: winemaking strategies. Very clearly, two clashing attitudes prevailed. On the one hand, there were the practitioners of a rather classic approach based on taking into account the weather conditions and the actual fruit profile of the raw material. They sought to produce elegant, remarkably aromatic wines with silky tannins and even a good measure of density without overdoing it, as well as having good length and aging capacity. On the other hand, there were those who chose to be more interventionist in their vinification process and used malolactic fermentation in barrels, reverse osmosis, a good amount of saignée, as well as long, even heavy-handed extractions to produce wines having a profile more along the lines of those from 2020 or 2019. My clear preference is for the former school of thought and action.

In the case of the second approach, although the wines might have seemed at the en primeur tastings to be surprisingly fleshy and dense, the mid-palate might be less impressive later on. Such wines also tended to be very tannic, and some might go the way of having both overt oak influence and imposing structure by the end of the aging process prior to their commercial release. For me, these wines are less representative of the vintage, but some of them will no doubt please certain wine writers and critics who have already affirmed that most wines lack density and ripe fruit. I will be eager to review their opinions in a few years in light of what I predict will be the deleterious effects of such interventionist practices of a type that we are observing more and more when opening bottles from the 2000s.

I wish to address yet another issue that was not that much discussed at the en primeur tastings: alcohol levels and pH (a measure for ripeness in relation to acidity). The use of chaptalisation (the addition of sugar to gain half a degree or one degree of alcohol) was widespread this year. This practice, which had not been used by Bordeaux producers for nearly ten years due to a long run of sunny vintages, came back with a vengeance in 2021. In itself, it does not necessarily compromise quality. But this year, with pH levels sometimes at around 3.7 to 3.8 and alcohol content at 13% vol. or even 13.5% vol., it is important to pay particular attention to two things. Firstly, volatile phenols – those aromatic deviations leading to funky stable-related odors and tastes that are often associated with Brettanomyces yeasts – thrive in these sorts of conditions (high pH and high alcohol). The second concern is the loss of freshness in the long run.

Even if there is welcome freshness in the wine while it is young, high pH makes it difficult to maintain it over the long term, so the wine risks becoming less bright in its expression. These two factors are time bombs for the future quality of the wines, and this is why it will be so important to manage the élevage period in the cellar carefully and pay constant attention to them.

What about the overall quality of this 2021 vintage, coming as it did on the heels of all these challenges and struggles? First of all, it should be said that winegrowers put up a good fight and maintained an unrelenting presence in the vineyard (up to 25 treatments for some biodynamic growers). This unrelenting commitment was definitely a positive element. Without today’s techniques and the deepening understanding of the benefits brought by adaptive, parcellary viticulture in the Bordeaux region, it is very likely that this vintage would have been very close in style to 2013. Clearly, this is not the case.

Colossal efforts paid off and a great many wines attained an exceptional level of quality, with some notable, undeniable successes that may even surpass the brilliant level of 2020. Of course, the vintage is very heterogeneous, and it will be necessary to cherry-pick before purchasing, but the average level is quite high considering the climatic conditions. The wines are elegant and fruity and have finesse. As such, they should be ready to drink within ten to twenty years. Clearly, the style of the wines at this stage is already far removed from the impression left by the sometimes erroneous information put forth early on by some wine writers and critics, which compromised the reputation of this vintage even before the wines were tasted.

The en primeur tastings were particularly challenging this year. As we know, sunny vintages tend to smooth out quality differences as even modest estates perform well, a bit like small boats rising with the tide alongside the luxury yachts. In the case of the outstanding vintages of 2016, 2018, and 2019, they were also marked by increasingly precise viticulture and finely judged grape ripeness that privileged good acidity. 2021, however, presented its own set of challenges that complicates appraisal at this early stage. In addition to at times unusual grape and vat blending choices, there was the growing issue of increasingly lower doses of sulphur additions adopted by many properties, which makes the preparation of tasting samples even more delicate, even problematic, and all the more so as atmospheric conditions in the region changed during the tasting period. The same wine proved at times to be quite different from sample to sample, so it was crucial to taste it several times before making an appraisal. This was not always made possible by certain producers, which is regrettable. So even more than usual, it pays to proceed with caution when reading 2021 tasting reports.

Nevertheless, there seems to me to be a common denominator among those properties that made successful wines: an overriding vision that took the whole picture of the vintage into account and a profound knowledge of their terroirs. I dare think that the properties that have succeeded in making exceptional – even in some instances great – wines are those headed by people having a deep understanding of their terroirs, their strong as well as their weak points. This enabled them to adapt their vineyard work as well as their winemaking strategies and conduct their action with a watchmaker’s precision. Unlike 2016, 2018, 2019 or 2020, weather patterns in 2021 did not create the conditions for widespread wine quality and consumer appeal of the likes found in more sun-drenched vintages. In fact, although 2021 is a fine-boned vintage, to use the term certain English wine writers like to employ, it is also, in its own way, a close-to-the-bone vintage, in the sense used to describe the writing of French author Georges Simenon, famous for his bare bones style using no artifice whatsoever.

2021 is a vintage of strong terroir identity in which the appreciation of the wines depends greatly on the chosen strategies of wine production. The keys as well the challenges to making successful wines this year turned on the issues of knowing one’s terroir intimately, having a clear vision and objective, and then conducting precise, adaptive viticulture and winemaking. This is why the best wines are so different from one another, as they have so much of the terroir expression that forges the singular identity of a fine wine. What is so enticing about these wines is how the best terroirs produced wines of great subtlety and nuance along with striking tension that is all the more pronounced because they do not have the sun-drenched density of the wines from recent vintages. Certainly, terroirs that were more exposed to the at times extreme climatic challenges of the year suffered more, but even there, a number of careful wine growers produced some beautiful wines, and a few even achieved greatness.

The style of the best wines is the result of having respected the berries as they were at harvest time, and so it is based on a precise, chiselled profile without excessive density. This vintage, which, as has been said, has strong place identity, must be appraised by taking into account not only its strengths and successes, but also its weaknesses, even its outright failures and those that are in between the two extremes, but also its surprises and disappointments. Its heterogeneity stems from the multiple facets already presented. But one thing is certain, the battles waged against the many climatic challenges, the strategic decisions made (both viticultural and vinicultural) will have a major, lasting impact on the whole Bordeaux region. 2021 is a vintage that will make Bordeaux evolve. In my opinion, those who have made more technological wines present a less interesting but even misleading expression of the vintage. I believe that 2021 is a vintage in which the key element is what is formally designated as ipseity, meaning a condition of individual identity. As the French Larousse dictionary states, it is about being oneself and not something else. That is why for my English-language readers I call 2021 the Popeye vintage, in a nod to the comic strip sailor made famous by the animation cartoons from the Fleischer studio in the 1930s. Popeye famously declared (and sang) “I yam what I yam and that’s all what I yam, I’m Popeye the Sailor Man!” Or, as we say in the wine world, in vino veritas.

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